I have to admit that I have not done a great job of observing Lent this year. Over the years I have become more ambitious and traditionalist in my fasting. I refrain from meat and sweets from Monday through Saturday--at least I do that early in the season. I fast more severely on Wednesdays and Fridays, following monastic practice. I resolve to stop watching shows about murder and instead read books about murder. In years past I have resolved to stop eating out. If I couldn’t plan ahead or prepare my own meals, I should toughen up and wait until I could.
The truth is, I’ve always loved Lent. I loved the fasting, loved the restraint in worship, loved the heightened spirituality of the whole thing. Six sober, watchful, reflective, difficult weeks and then the great festival--champagne and strawberries and chocolate after the Easter Vigil and a roast lamb on Sunday.
And this year there would be no feast at the end of it. Last year I celebrated the Easter Vigil with the Episcopal church down the street from us. We’d done this service jointly for seven years and it was our worst attendance yet. Just twenty-one people showed up. Now I look back on it with nostalgia--twenty-one people! We had cookies and drinks together in the little parish hall and it was wonderful.
Lent, I have discovered, is like practicing for a game whose rules you don’t know until it starts. What will it matter that I fasted or prayed or gave some extra money? The truth is, I had no idea until God in his unsearchable wisdom interrupted the whole thing. In the past, I have to admit, Lent was a performance. Whether it was for God or for me I don’t know, but it was a show. This year it was the real thing.
Today we enter into the story of the suffering and death of our Lord with the liturgy of Maundy Thursday.
Today is supposed to be a culmination. This is the day I lay hands on worshipers and absolve your sins. We have been withholding the words of absolution during Lent in anticipation of tonight. And yet we can’t do that. This is the night when Christians remember Jesus’ humble act of service by washing each other’s feet, and tonight I will be able to do that only for my own son. This is the night when we remember the institution of his most sacred and awesome mystery, the Eucharist. It was to be the time a new group of young people were introduced to it.
Even more than tomorrow, even more than Easter itself, Thursday is supposed to crown a beautiful and holy Lent. This is what we are building toward: the absolution of our sins, the communion in the Body and Blood of Our Lord, the new commandment to love one another that we enact in the frightening intimacy of washing feet. That will all have to wait.
Today we are left with a very different experience of Holy Week. We are left with longing. With a desire we cannot fulfill. We long to be together in worship, to see and hear and feel the presence of one another. We long to share the Eucharist together. We long to gather again at our Lord’s altar, to kneel and receive the gift that opens Paradise.
Jesus himself expresses this longing to his friends right before he institutes the Sacrament in Luke’s Gospel: I have longed to share this meal with you, he tells them. It is the night of his arrest and the eve of his death and he has longed for it.
We, too, should be longing for this meal. We should have been longing for it all along. Whether we go a day or a week or a month or a decade without receiving it, we should long for it. This great and holy and simple and perfect gift--surely we should crave it continually. Surely we should crave that holy and simple gift of each other, elbow to elbow, voice to voice, here in this place even if we come every week.
And if God is using this time to sharpen our longing, how can we grumble? This is part of why I have not accepted the practice of virtual communion. I don’t think each of us bring our own elements and communing around our own screens is real. And it is better to long for the real thing than to possess a false one. It is better to long for the presence of Christ than to be content with anything else.
I don’t think I ever understood that until this season. Lent was practice, Lent was show. And now we have to really go without things that matter, whether they are small or great. Anyone can imitate grief and yearning but we have been forced to experience the real thing. And if the body of Christ at the altar cannot unite us now, that longing can unite us. And it does unite us. We all wish this were different than it is, and in that wishing we can learn what our faith really means.
We long for the absent Christ. He becomes present for us on the altar. We receive him, we flee to him, we take shelter in him. And then we long for him all the more for the fulfillment of his reign. Because all of this, however much we love it, is a shadow of the fulfillment to come. Beyond death, beyond fear, beyond separation, there is the kingdom we long for no matter how often we come to this place or how long we must refrain. Amen.